Chances are that the small town of Smethport, Pennsylvania, hasn’t made it very high on your bucket list of places to visit in the good ol’ US of A. Fact is, even though it was once home to America’s first dedicated Christmas store (which is actually quite fitting for a place that is known as the coldest town in Pennsylvania), you’ve probably never even heard of the north-central Pennsylvania township. However, we’re willing to bet that you grew up with a celebrity of sorts that was born in this small with an area of only 1.7 square miles. And more than likely, he or one of his cousins probably joined you in the backseat on a few of the family road trips of your youth.
You see, Wooly Willy – that jovial man with a magnetic personality and attractive hair – was born here in Smethport in 1955, the brainchild of the town’s very own James Reese Herzog.
Back then, James and his brother Donald worked together at the Smethport Specialty Company, their father’s toy factory, mainly helping to manufacture spinning tops and magnet sets. One day while James was flattening the magnets across a grinder, he noticed there was a lot of magnetic dust left behind. He picked it up and started playing with it using a magnet. It was then he got the idea for Wooly Willy, that classic toy that lets kids brandish a tiny magnetic wand and use it to create a variety of beards, moustaches, and hairstyles on an otherwise bald cartoon face.
James shared his idea with his brother Donald who was enthusiastic about the idea as well. In fact, after hearing about a new technique called “vacuum forming” that the Army was using to make three-dimensional plastic maps, Donald suggested that the same technique could be used to hold the “hair” of Wooly Willy.
Next, the brothers teamed up with local artist Leonard Mackowski to do the artwork. Mackowski drew Wooly Willy along with the thumbnail sketches adorning the sides of the packaging that inspired users to create everything from mullets to Mohawks and even hipster Wooly Willy beards and mustaches without raising any Wooly Willy eyebrows (because you could make those, too). Now the Herzog’s had a simple, portable, inexpensive product that they priced at 29 cents each.
Photojournalist Eve Arnold once said, “It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is” and even at such a bargain, the brothers didn’t sell a single product. It seemed local retailers didn’t share in the Herzog’s enthusiasm for Wooly Willy, either, with one telling the them that it was the worst toy he had ever seen. In fact, to try and shut down their idea for good, one retailer bought 72 of the toys to prove they’d never sell. Two days later he was on the phone with the Herzog brothers again; this time, however, he was asking them to send him 12,000 more. It seems ol’ Wooly Willy was really something special after all.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that’s true, there have been many sincere flatterers of Wooly Willy ever since his debut with names like Mr. Doodleface and Hair-Do Harriet, Baby Face and Hairless Hugo, as well as the horror-inspired Thurston Blood, Eaton Brains, I. Sockets, and Ben Toomd. And we would be remiss not mention Vulture’s hilarious “Wooly Billy” tribute to the loveable Bill Murray. Seriously, this should win some kind of internet lifetime achievement award or something like that to go along with the Toy Industry Association naming Wooly Willy one of the 100 most influential toys of the 20th century.
Since selling its first 72 Wooly Willy toys in 1955, the Smethport Specialty Company sold over a million products a year. And the trend continues even after the company was sold to Patch Products Inc. of Beloit, Wisconsin in 2008 who still sell over a million Wooly Willys a year. Not bad for a toy once deemed “the worst ever” and especially good for a toy that has retained its simplicity since the idea was first conceived. No batteries needed. No download pending. All you need is a magic wand and a little imagination to give a cheerful bald man a little silly hair-do or two.
And because we can’t think of any segue that will take us from Wooly Willy to our famous Stuckey’s pecan log roll that wouldn’t sound “hair-brained”, were just going to go straight into telling you that the next time you’re out and about, make one of your stops a Stuckey’s stop. Whether it’s our fine pecan candies like our newest and biggest 10 ounce Stuckey’s pecan log roll or a Stuckey’s mug, cap or t-shirt, something from any one of our Stuckey’s locations always makes a road trip more fun.
With the holidays fast approaching, Stuckey’s always has the perfect gifts for all your family and friends. After all, who wouldn’t want to wake up Christmas morning and find their stocking stuffed with a delicious 10-inch Stuckey’s pecan log? To find out how you can get our fine pecan candies and other Stuckey’s merchandise delivered straight to your home, visit our website at stuckeys.com for more info.
Whether your next road trip is by car or by rail, it’s not really a road trip without taking Stuckey’s along. From our world famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls to our mouthwatering Hunkey Dorey, Stuckey’s has all the road trips snacks you’ll need to get you where you’re going.
For all of the pecany good treats and cool merch you’ll need for your next big road adventure, browse our online store now!
Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!